In a Europe where Russia has invaded both Ukraine and Georgia, while threatening numerous neighbors, and where traditionally neutral Finland and Sweden have acceded to NATO, Ireland now faces decisions about the balance between its historic policy of neutrality and its security.
The continent’s darkening security backdrop has caused widespread reassessments, a trend made more vivid in Ireland’s case by Russian naval bullying in its backyard.
Since World War II, the country has followed a policy of neutrality largely as a result of its desire to assert an independent foreign policy from Britain. This stance, along with its geographical isolation from the rest of Europe, has protected it from wars both hot and cold.
Three developments have changed Dublin’s outlook on foreign affairs: formal NATO partnerships, the European Union Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Irish government launched a Consultative Forum on International Security Policy in June to respond to the widespread threats to Europe. The forum came on the heels of a budget increase for the Irish Defence Forces, from €1.1bn to €1.5bn by 2028.
The results of the Consultative Forum encouraged further development of Ireland’s partnerships with international security organizations such as NATO and the EU, but ultimately recommended to Minister for Defence Micheál Martin that Ireland’s neutral status remain unchanged.
The report, published October 18, delicately balances a respect for Ireland’s neutral history with what it deems to be a “consensus” on increased military spending and further engagement in world affairs.
The report also calls for a reexamination of the so-called triple lock mechanism. This applies to any military action involving more than 12 personnel and stipulates that it may only follow a United Nations (UN) mandate, a government decision and Dáil approval.
Martin said that Ireland’s place in the world must be reconsidered given the “new reality” of Russian aggression.
This new reality has had a resounding impact elsewhere with other historically neutral states, such as Finland, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland. Finland and Sweden have joined, or are poised to join, NATO, while Austria and Switzerland are reconsidering their security policies and are integrating further into EU security projects.
Finland and Sweden protect NATO’s northeastern flank against Russia, though Moscow has not limited its activity to the Baltic Sea. In May, Irish Defence Forces identified four Russian naval and commercial vessels in Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ.) They included the Admiral Grigorovich, a frigate armed with Kalibr cruise missiles which has been used by Russia for attacks on Ukraine.
It is not the first time Ireland has been confronted with Russian military activity; in January 2022, shortly before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Irish fishermen successfully obstructed the Russian Navy’s efforts to carry out military exercises in their fishing grounds.
And even before Russia’s encroachments on Irish waters, Dublin had deepened its security partnerships with NATO and the EU.
In 1999, the country linked-up with NATO for the first time, joining its Partnership for Peace (PfP) program and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. In these capacities Ireland plans operations, trains troops and coordinates logistics.
Earlier this year, the Cabinet also approved a broadening of Ireland’s participation in NATO-led PfP specialisms, from 15 to 22. These include cybersecurity, air evacuation and intelligence.
The CSDP, which took on its current form in 2009, committed member-states to a shared defense framework. Ireland currently participates in four CSDP missions to assist Mali, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine and Libya.
Dublin is now considering more involvement in EU security and defense initiatives in the CSDP, an area of activity that has been strengthened by the head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.
Not everyone is keen to see changes to Irish neutrality. While the two ruling Irish parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael introduced the Consultative Forum, Sinn Féin, the main opposition party, sees neutrality as pivotal to the state’s republican credentials.
Sinn Féin politicians, such as MEP Chris MacManus, criticized the Consultative Forum for being “less about public debate and more about an attempt to reshape public opinion.”
Pointing to a poll in which 61% of Irish people supported neutrality, MacManus said his party wants “to defend Irish neutrality, and we want to see it enshrined in our constitution.” However, the same poll also showed 55% support for “significantly increasing” military capacity.
Irish President Michael Higgins has also cautioned against leaving neutrality behind, arguing that the Consultative Forum was “playing with fire.”
From confrontation with Russia to increasing involvement with NATO and the CSDP, Ireland seems more willing than ever to engage in a broader foreign policy with the wider world. But it will be left to the voters to decide just how far this goes, given neutrality’s special place in the Irish national story.
Sophie Boulter is a political analyst and governmental consultant with degrees from the University of Cambridge, Xavier University and the London School of Economics.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.